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The Incumbent: Chapter 10

It's an intricate web of murder plots, government conspiracies and rampant tanning. Oh, and the future of the entire nation.

ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.

Jimi Jones arrived at the VastTel head office keen to talk to someone who could reconsider the outcome of his job application. He walked through the imposing open atrium, where high walls of solid granite were festooned with giant works of art of questionable taste. He was impressed nonetheless, not just by the architecture, but also by the buzz around the building. The whole place seemed alive with action. People strolled across the polished tiles, engaged in a myriad of mobile phone conversations. Others were busy in meetings over cappuccinos and decaf soy lattés and double shot espressos, with one sugar and the milk not too hot. To the passive observer it looked like a group of dynamic people engaged in making money, until you honed in on the cafeteria conversations.

'My boss died yesterday. He was 78. He's still in his office. I figured if I don't tell anyone I won't have to do any work.'

'I am so busy right now. I sent 10 emails yesterday, four of them to do with work. It's just getting out of hand';

'I have to go home early today. It just gets so busy on the trains after lunchtime';

'I'm on holiday next week. I've found if I don't fill in the leave form I can take as much time off as I like';

'My boss died yesterday. He was 78. He's still in his office. I figured if I don't tell anyone I won't have to do any work';

And so on.

Jimi Jones wasn't listening to any of this. He was more intent on finding the Human Resources department. On the ground floor there was no evidence of a reception desk or helpful signage of any kind, so he decided to jump in a lift and see where it took him. He waited only a few moments before a door opened, releasing a tide of suited executives who spilled across the floor towards the coffee shop, each engaged in an intimate mobile phone conversation, with a superior, a bank manager, a lover or, in most cases, the woman who was again politely telling them that there were no unplayed messages in their voice mailboxes.

No sooner had the mass of bodies swept out of the lift than another tide swept in. Jones found himself pushed along with the crowd as they jostled against each other for position. One by one they'd each reach for the lift buttons until all 18 floors were selected. Jones tried to get close to the front so he could peer out at each level, looking for any sign of a reception desk. He didn't have to try too hard as the others, all being fairly timid creatures, were fighting for space at the back. Already Jones was standing out as someone very different to the rest of the company.

'He's not read the corporate values,' observed one person, pointing to Jones.

'I'm sorry, do I know you?' came the reply from a woman, surprised to be engaged in conversation with someone to which she was not acquainted.

'Sorry,' said the first, turning bright red and curling up on the floor, where he would remain for most of the morning.

On most floors only one or two people got out, until they reached level 9, where nearly everyone left, squeezing out and heading down the corridor, the herd remaining as tightly packed as they had been in the elevator. They veered towards the double doors at the end of the corridor and Jones was again swept along with them. One person swiped a security card and the entire pack gained entry. Only then did they finally disperse. Away from the womb-like warmth and security of the crowd the workers reluctantly moved to their desks, or 'workstations' as they are known by anyone who had difficulty with the economy of the word 'desk'.

The floor, like most in the building, was entirely open plan. Very few people had offices. They were seen as too exclusive and not in keeping with the 'flat operating structure and ethos of VastTel'. They were the words of Twistie Buffet, who basically wanted offices ripped out because he was well aware that, when they had one, most of his managers spent their days masturbating with the blinds shut. As far as he was concerned this was a privilege of rank that only he should enjoy. Or a 'privilege of wank' as he had inadvertently told one worker, who put the Freudian slip down to a speech impediment and politely assumed he regularly spilt coffee creamer on his trouser leg.

Without offices to demonstrate their standing within the organisation, each person's location in the open plan layout was used to indicate their place in the VastTel 'pecking order'. Generally, a window seat represented more than 10 years in the company. An aisle seat represented seniority in job title, and the majority in mid-aisle positions were serial non-achievers, whilst a seat close to the toilets represented either a recent recruit or someone with a known bowel condition.

With everyone in place behind their work-desk-stations, Jones was surprised by the sudden silence that ensued. The enthusiastic chatter he had experienced in the lobby had completely disappeared. Not a word was spoken. Instead everyone seemed entranced, watching keenly as their computers slowly logged on to the corporate network. Elaborate pieces of software checked to see that the hard disk still existed, then checked it for pornography, saw if any of it was new, backed it up, then scanned email for derogatory comments about the board and CEO. These complex routines did their work at agonisingly slow speeds on machines that, in computer terms, dated back to the early Pleistocene period. Yet VastTel workers sat and watched, as if they had been hypnotised by a mystical guru from some obscure cult. If Windows flashed up a dialogue box telling people to commit suicide en masse so they could be beamed up to the space ship, they probably would.

A call to the Help Desk created the heightened risk of a personal visit from someone in the IT team, although they did their best to work remotely from the basement and avoid contact with humans and daylight.

In truth they were probably praying that their computer would log-on without an error. A failed connection was commonplace and meant at least four hours of geek-talk from someone in the IT team who manned the Help Desk (which, interestingly, was never referred to as a Help Workstation). A call to the Help Desk created the heightened risk of a personal visit from someone in the IT team, although they did their best to work remotely from the basement and avoid contact with humans and daylight.

Nonetheless visits were sometimes necessary. Consequently, VastTel staff had become adept at holding their breath for long periods, for fear of inhaling the odour of an IT geek whose life was largely based in a virtual world where real objects such as, for example, soap and deodorant, didn't exist.

Jimi Jones was quick to experience the odour of IT. Having been dragged in with the horde, he had taken a seat at an empty workstation while he caught his breath and considered his next move. How would he find the HR department so he could pursue his application? Within seconds he was approached by a young IT 'dude', as they liked to call themselves even though the term had ceased to be fashionable sometime before they were born.

'I need your name and a password,' said the dude.

'But I don't work here,' said Jones.

'I know,' said the dude. 'This is Marketing right? No one works here. Just give me the name and password.'

He had one of those sniggering laughs that IT people all seem to have; the laugh they use in response to precisely the same things that no one else finds the least bit amusing.

Jones gave his name and chose a sequence of five asterisks as his password, so it would be easy to remember, then feeling slightly nauseous he stepped away as the dude changed some settings on the computer. Eventually, the dude swung round on the chair so quickly that a few of his head lice went flying, before exclaiming rather too excitedly: 'That's it, you're in. Welcome to VastTel!'

He stuck both thumbs in the air and gave a look so deranged that it must have taken an enormous amount of practice.

Jones again tried to explain that he didn't work for VastTel, but his voice was drowned out by the air conditioning, that had turned itself up to 'high', an automatic move whenever there was several IT staff on the floor.

Jones sat back down at the desk and typed his username and password into the computer. It fired up and opened a web browser showing the company Intranet. At the top it said 'Welcome Jimi Jones', and alongside it his employee number.

'My god,' he said. He had accidentally been employed. He had a computer, an employee number (which he could use if ever he forgot his name) and a job. The only issue was he didn't know what the job was or what he was supposed to do all day. It would take him a while to realise that there wasn't anything too unusual in that at VastTel. In the meantime, to buy a bit more time he rebooted his computer and spent the next half hour staring intently at the screen. He had been at VastTel for an hour, but already he could feel his brain starting to slowly die.

The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.